Somewhere, there’s a poem on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Island Mountain Glacier Volcano” …

… and these are two of its verses:

“Compared to the last eruption, this one is spooky, unpredictable and not tourist friendly.”

“The heart of our island is pulsing, throbs exposed for all to see … And we’re to let our own hearts beat in time.”



– I’m still checking in regularly at the Eyjafjallajökull web cam. Which is slow, because I’m not exactly the only one doing so, but I do it anyway.

Lightning in ash cloud. I don’t even remember where that one came from.

– A picture of the Markfljót behaving, for now, along with photos of the ash cloud and the land around it, also from Reykjavík Harbor. This one looks particularly, quietly apocalyptic.

Aurora, stars, volcano.

“All we ever know is that the tourists survive …”

So, aside from all of the downright incredible photos, and the always-fascinating geology, there’s a thing about the Eyafjallajökull volcano that I’ve been thinking about — the way people are reacting to it. Not the part where everyone jokes about being unable to pronounce the volcano’s name. (And, seriously? Tell me the pronunciation of Eyafjallajökull makes any less sense than that of, say, thoroughfare.)

But the part where large numbers of people simply cannot believe that a volcano, of all things, can be messing with their lives.

Here in the western U.S., we have wildfires in summer. And every year, when you hear the wildfire reports, you also hear about people who have decided to ignore some evacuation order or other in order to try to protect their homes. This makes little sense — no amount of rugged individualism is enough to allow any of us to stop a wildfire singlehandedly — and yet I think people stay because it feels like we should be able to do something, somehow, some way. I’m guessing it’s the same sort of thinking that causes people who have the means to leave the path of a hurricane to stay at home. It feels like surely there must always be something we can do, if we’re brave or smart or stubborn enough.

But there isn’t.

In the early 1970s, on Heimæy Island south of Iceland, a fissure opened in a farmer’s field and began spewing lava. Everyone was evacuated within four hours. There was only one fatality, someone who was after drugs in a local pharmacy. The residents were lucky–the fishing fleet was already in the harbor. But the point is, as far as I know no one questioned whether they should get on board one of those ships, or tried to stay behind to save their homes from the lava. When faced with an erupting volcano, they left.

A few returned later to help pump huge quantities of seawater toward the lava in an effort to save the harbor, which is pretty awesome. But for the most part, in the struggle between man and nature, nature always wins, and there’s only so much we can do about it. We’re not in charge here.

lnhammer and I have been joking that everyone’s gotten into the habit of thinking of volcanoes as a third-world problem. There’s this notion that with sufficient resources, there ought to be a way of facing down and defeating, well, anything.

But there isn’t. When a volcano erupts, there’s nothing we can do, except to heed what warnings our cleverness and luck provide us.

We’re not in control, not always, not really, and I think maybe the disbelief of the past few days comes from large numbers of people being reminded of that, all at the same time.

Thief Eyes and the current volcano

So Eyjafjallajökull — the Icelandic volcano that’s been erupting the past month, and that’s begun melting glaciers and disrupting air travel the past couple days — is about 10 miles from where the climactic scenes of Thief Eyes take place — we had a view of the glacier the volcano is now melting from the hostel we stayed in when we visited.

I’ve been thinking about those scenes a lot the past few days and wondering … how to talk about this without spoilers … whether Haley, my protagonist, didn’t leave some loose ends lying about at the end of her story, or maybe not quite succeed in doing all the things she set out to do as well as she thought.

Haley’s father, Gabe, who’s a geologist, would insist that Iceland has always been a hugely geologically active island, that volcanoes and earthquakes have always happened there on a regular basis, and that there’s no reason to think anything Haley or anything anyone else did would change that, magic or no magic. But Ari’s mother, Katrín, who is also a geologist, would say that that just because the island is geologically active doesn’t mean it isn’t magically active as well.

I picture Haley, now back in the States, worrying as she watches the news no matter what her father says, IMing Ari — and Katrín — and trying to find a flight to Keflavík amid the shifting winds and that moving ash cloud around.

Haley finds watching all the volcano footage much more unsettling than I do.

Speaking of which, some more links: a webcam, volcano photos from The Big Picture, and a gallery over on flickr. (via galeni, lnhammer, and the iceland community.)


While yesterday geologists and others thought the Eyjafjallajökull volcano had stopped erupting, today it has begun again, this time with considerably more force, and underneath the glacier as well, which means there’s been glacial flooding. Some of the fastest-rising water has been in the Markarfljót river (site of Skarphéðinn’s memorable bit of ice skating in Njal’s Saga), but there is evidence the river is now subsiding. It’s not clear whether the tourists are having fun. (ETA: But the airlines certainly aren’t.)

Footage from the current eruption:

And from the first one:

Also, ads for helicopter volcano tours. Surely that can’t be a good idea?

Eyjafjallajökull volcano

I”m late linking to this one, but around midnight UTC last night a volcano near the Eyjafjallajökull glacier began erupting and continues to do so, though fortunately it has turned out the volcano is not actually underneath the glacier, which means there’s no danger of a jökulhlaup, and it may even have reduced the pressure beneath the glacier. More of a concern is that the past three times there’s been an eruption near Eyjafjallajökull, the more dangerous Katla has erupted soon after.

Everyone in the area was safely evacuated. The volcanology students are having fun.

Eyjafjallajökull is not far from the Fljótsdalur valley, which includes Hlíðarendi, as well as the lovely Fljotsdalur hostel we stayed at there–from which we could see the glacier. (The eruption, as I understand it, is a bit east of there, on the other side of the ridge.)

Two unrelated links I keep meaning to post

reykjavikharbor on Two Sides of the Story:

The best bits of Iceland are still here. I didn’t come to buy a no-money down Mercedes jeep with a loan in Euros, I didn’t come so I could spend my weekends in shopping malls, and most of my friends are not that sort either. We’re here, going about our daily business, having coffee, preparing for new babies, going to work, reading, talking, swimming, running.

When I think of Iceland, I think of many things–gray moss, the ruins of turf houses, wind and rain and startling moments of stillness, children hyped on sugar riding their bicycles round and round, hot dogs with crunchy onions, old stories close enough to touch, the clink of volcanic stones beneath by feet, scalding hot pots, good conversations, countless other things … and that’s only after two two-week (too-short) visits; I know well enough there are layers and layers I haven’t seen. No country is its economy and nothing else (or else Americans would think of ourselves as living in “that place with the bad mortgages and the people losing their homes”), something at least some of the folks reacting to Iceland’s particular economic troubles seem to forget sometimes.


PW interview with Ellen Klages on White Sands, Red Menace:

Q: Like Suze’s parents, Suze, an artist, and her more scientific-minded best friend, Dewey, are two very different individuals. Do you identify with one of the characters more than the other?

A: I started out thinking I was more like Suze since I am more into art than engineering. But sometimes—like when I’m fixing the Xerox machine—my friends have said, “See, you’re just like Dewey.” I’ve come to realize that artists and scientists are alike. They go through the same processes using different tools. They are both driven to answer the question, “What if?”

And they both have to think creatively, yes. And being one doesn’t mean you can’t understand the other–can’t also be the other, for that matter.

Iceland: Into the Fog

I’m delighted and honored to have an article on my travels in Iceland in the farewell issue of the Journal of the Mythic Arts.

To go with it, here’s a much overdue index of Iceland trip reports (all dates are 2007):

Iceland photos
June 9-10
June 11
June 12
June 13
June 14
June 15
June 16
June 17
June 18, Part 1
June 18, Part 2
June 19, Part 1
June 19, Part 2
June 20
June 21
June 22
June 23
June 24
June 25

Rereading the article and skimming the reports has me longing to go back. That island in the north Atlantic continues to tug on this desert girl–I know we’ll return again someday, though I don’t yet know when.

Iceland: Atlantic crossing

June 25

(No new photos this time–my camera battery really did die on the 24th!)

(Earlier photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.) (This is the last installment, so I’ll index everything all properly sometime soon. Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who’s stayed with me for the year it took me to get this all down!)

After two weeks of unnaturally good weather, we woke to find our final night’s rain still with us– the hills across the harbor seemed hooded and faint, all the world muted with gray. We had breakfast in the hostel, surrounded by participants in the international youth sports festival, and their nervous energy seemed somehow at odds with that quiet mutedness.

As we headed to our shuttle bus and made our way to the airport, I still had the nagging feeling of something left undone. My journal is filled again with notes on things I wanted to remember, hang on to, take home with me:

– Green fields of yellow flowers
– The purple haze of lupines on a hillside
– The steel gray of the sea
– Black rocks, coarse sands
– The feel of cold, wet air against my arms
– The yellow sunsets, the long pink evenings
– The Icelandic language, to my American ears, full of swishes and whispers, of wind sounds

I also have a note I’d forgotten to write down before, about an American we met earlier in the trip, telling us how her Icelandic father, who left the country young and spoke only English, had a head injury during a visit, and suddenly was able to speak fluent Icelandic to his doctors. Fascinating, that.

And another note, from one of the books we brought home with us and started reading in the airport: In The Book Of Settlements, there’s another Hallgerður mentioned, also with hair long enough to touch the floor. When this Hallgerður refused to accompany her husband (my notes don’t say to where), he grabbed her by the hair and chopped off her head.

Given than, one can sort of see why the better-known Hallgerður might have been just a little possessive of her own hair.

In the airport gift shop, waiting for our flight, I found a black stone that seemed to be obsidian, and discovered that the Icelandic word for obsidian (if it is obsidian) is hrafntinna, which translates to … Raven stone? Raven flint? … which sets of interesting thoughts about the links between ravens and rocks.

A stray note a little further on says, “Sorcerers understand the language of ravens.” I can’t remember where I read this now.

We lifted off on schedule–I still wasn’t sure I was ready to go, though I was no longer quite sure I was not-ready, either. The island below us disappeared beneath a layer of low foggy cloud–for a few moments we were surrounded by misty gray, then brighter gray, and then we were flying through blue sky, with the gray stretched out beneath us.

At some point I dozed off, woke from a nap, looked out the window, and saw a strange patchwork of rivers, lakes, and cultivated fields below–no hint of black stone or green moss. We’d crossed the Atlantic, I was looking down over a different land, and after two weeks, that land seemed just a little strange.

It seemed to me, just then, that it wasn’t so long ago that this same crossing had been made in a one-sailed boat. And the seas might be rough, and you might fear for your life, and returning home safe again was by no means guaranteed. You hoped for a safe journey, a good landing, not knowing whether you would get them.

We had a safe crossing–light winds, no turbulence. Our landing, a short time later, was gentle as well. I found it harder to take these things for granted, after two weeks of reading stories, and learning about ships, and seeing all those memorials to drowned sailors–one man pulling another man from the sea.

As we taxied down the runway I saw that the runes for protection, on the stone Sigurður gave me back in Strandir, had faded. Perhaps magic can’t cross the waters–or perhaps it simply takes a great deal of protection–a great deal of sorcery–to see one safely across them.

We emerged into the hot, humid Boston air, caught a short flight to Newark, and then caught a longer one–across the country and away from the sea–to Tucson, which is nearly as far away from the northeastern United States as Reykjavík is.

On that last flight, as the sun set, I slept my best airplane sleep yet, waking occasionally to see the sky moving through deepening grays to black. I woke in the dark–the first true dark in more than two weeks–with my dreams forgotten, but with the deep sense that they’d been about Iceland and sorcery.

I thought then: Maybe I get to keep something of these travels, after all. Maybe it doesn’t all disappear when I leave the Atlantic behind.

Tucson was hotter than Boston–39C, 102F–but dryer. We caught a ride home with a friend we met, by chance, in the airport–an unexpected welcome home.

No midnight sun as we left the airport, but a bright, bright silver desert moon.

The habit of observing small details stayed with me for a time after I returned to Tucson, turning the details of my own home new and sharp, a sort of second journey that lasted through much of the rest of the summer.

At one point I wrote in my journal:

In Tucson, a sorcerer would not send fog, but wind or fire.
It’s too hot to leave a baby out by a boulder here, unless you did so for the shade.
But one might still decide the land was too lovely to leave.

But that was later, after a couple summer months during which Tucson and Iceland swam around together in my head. The morning after I returned I wrote simply this:

The hot desert air caresses my arms.
I blink in the brightness.
It is good to travel.
It is good to be home.